Greg knocked once on Daniel’s door before walking inside. He had a key and he had been here often enough to check on him. The flat was immaculate, but Daniel had been living in his bedroom the last few days. Normally this sort of cleanliness was due to his absence. Daniel was out on assignment more often than Greg.
It was no secret the Old Man preferred to use Daniel. There were a variety of reasons for this and most of them Greg could safely assume to be the truth, but the most important one was that Daniel was good. No, he was the best. He could do anything it seemed. He could get in an out of any situation. He could be charming or cold and distant. He could use people without a second thought and come home with the mission accomplished. Greg was good, but he was a security risk in the eyes of the Old Man. Women were a luxury he was afforded only because he never let them get in the way.
That was changing. Ilena was a direct contact. A woman he had thought about for almost ten years. She was the kind that stayed in his mind days later. None had lasted so long as that. He didn’t want to lose the feeling it brought him. If he closed his eyes he could remember every detail of their night together. He might spend the day like that. It was a good memory.
The Old Man knew her. This was a consideration he would have to tread carefully around. Something about her had triggered his sudden reaction and only a small handful of people could ever do that. Even Greg couldn’t do that to him.
“Are you just going to stand there making faces at my plant?”
Greg looked up towards the bedroom door and eased when he saw Daniel staring back at him. “It’s such a pretty plant,” he said with a grin.
“It lacks basic functions you need,” he assured Greg. “What are you doing here?”
Greg held up the bag of food. “Breakfast. The doctor said you should eat and I’m sure you haven’t.”
“I’ve eaten,” Daniel argued, but he glanced at the brown bag with a mixed look of hunger and unease.
Greg smiled at the look and began pulling containers out. “Sit down, Dan, before you fall over. Feeling better?”
“I’m fine. Is the Old Man still angry?”
“Well, he asked me to tell you not to get sick again. I suppose he’s over it.” He sniffed the food and smiled a little. “See? Nothing like breakfast.” He pushed one container in front of Daniel and handed him a fork. “Bon appetite.”
The food was lacking in salt, but the bland taste helped Daniel to eat it without gagging. The last week had been a lonely and miserable one. He hadn’t been sick since before Shenay’s death. “It went well? They bought you as me?”
“Hook, line, and sinker.” He put a piece of fruit in his mouth. “They weren’t so concerned about me being foreign intelligence as they were with me be domestic.”
“Not a concern with your accent,” Daniel said, shoving another group of eggs into his mouth.
“Smooth enough to convince them,” he shot back. “But now I have to be you.”
“You better wrap this up soon,” he insisted. “I don’t want to go to Korea or Vietnam or Laos. The weather is awful.”
“But the women are so lovely,” he grinned.
“It’s a miracle you don’t have malaria yet.” Daniel took a sip of his tea.
Greg’s face fell some. “Your faith in me is embarrassing.” In fact, Greg had never been ill with malaria. The Old Man has taken no chances with disease. Greg had received every type of vaccine known to man and then some additional treatments to prevent other illnesses, including STDs. The latter had been especially emphasized.
They talked quietly for some time, discussing strategy, risks, openings, and anything else Daniel thought might help. He had worked on getting into the Krylov family for years without them ever seeing his face. Then in one foul swoop of fate he had been bedridden and Greg has been thrust into the situation. He didn’t harbor ill sentiments towards Greg for it, but he felt responsible for his safety. Krylov wasn’t a Vietnamese slumlord or general. He was a ruthless vor v zakone. He would kill Greg without a single thought of remorse if it served his purpose. Greg was good, but he didn’t know Russian politics like Daniel did.
“Most importantly, find someone you can use as backup,” he insisted. “A local, someone who won’t turn you into Krylov.”
“You act like this is my first mission,” Greg said dryly. “I have someone.”
“Already?” Daniel was surprised. “Who is it?”
“A girl.” He smiled. “Her name is Ilena.”
Daniel’s face dulled again. He had great respect for Greg’s skills, but the constant rollercoaster of women annoyed him. “Perhaps someone without breasts this time, Greg. You’ll have a clearer head.”
“My head is fine,” he shot back. “And she’ll do.”
That was it. He recognized the signal to end that conversation and found himself surprised again. Greg took comments about his womanizing with a grain of salt. A casual remark, a glib joke, a jolly smirk, but never in a defensive manner. Something was different.
“Did you visit Shenay?” he asked suddenly.
Daniel looked up at him for a long time. That was a topic off limits and they both knew it. Greg watched him with cold eyes. So this was payback for the earlier comment. Daniel pursed his lips. “No,” he said shortly.
“Take her some flowers,” he said calmly. “She always like it when you gave her flowers.”
He took another bite of the food. “I will speak to the Old Man about letting me come as back up.”
“If you think that’s best,” he said curtly.
Daniel set the fork down and rolled the heel of his hand over his eye. “Greg, stop acting like a baby. This is my job. My responsibility. I want to be there.”
“Then be there.” Greg looked him square in the eye. “But don’t treat me like an idiot.”
There was a small twitch of Daniel’s mouth. “But your accent really is terrible.”
With a dramatic groan, Greg threw his head back. “Will you all shut up about my bloody accent!”
Nights were never so lonely as when Greg was gone. Ilena found herself pacing the length of her living room. Sometimes she would flip a deck of cards in her hand or else clean the apartment even if it wasn’t required. The constant worry that he wouldn’t come back haunted her. Why should she care so much for a man she barely knew?
“He’s too young,” she murmured to herself. In fact, the age difference was only a few years. Noticeable when he was a schoolboy. Negligible now that he was a man. She bit her lip delicately in thought. She should tell him to leave. That Krylov would find out. That she was a whore and he was too good for the likes of her.
Her contract with Krylov bound her to him, but she had rights to get out of the deal whenever she wanted. Krylov was a cruel man, but he honored his agreements. Up until now it had been extremely profitable for both of them. Ilena possessed wit and sensibility that Krylov needed. Krylov had money. Until Greg Harris walked into her bedroom everything about her life with them had been safe. Now she needed him to leave for his own good.
The knock on her door startled her, but she thought nothing of the late night hour. Often Felicks or Krylov stopped by for a quickie on their way home. She wasn’t prepared for Greg standing in her doorway nor the sudden sweeping of his arms around her as he kissed her deeply. She dropped the deck of cards and wrapped her arms around him tightly in response.
His nose and lips were cold, but his breath was warm against her face as he pulled back to look at her. “I don’t have much time. I meet Krylov in the morning.”
“You shouldn’t have come,” she insisted, but she didn’t pull away from him. “This isn’t safe.”
“I wanted to see you.” He nuzzled her face affectionately. “I’ll leave cash in case they find out.
“I don’t want your money.” She kissed him again, biting his bottom lip. “I want you to get out of this country. You’re killing my business.” She pushed his coat off his shoulders and worked on getting him out of his shirt and suit.
Greg pushed her up against the wall hard as he rummaged for the edge of her shirt. “I’m the best business you’ve ever had.”
“That’s what you think.” But then he kissed her neck and she started to think that he might be right.
Several hours later she was returning the favored attention to his neck. She let her lips drop down to his shoulder where she paused at the sight of inked skin. “Why the ace of clubs?” She kissed the tattoo gently then made her way up to his neck.
Greg was face away from her and smiled at the attention. “A joke,” he said softly. “Someone joked that three of my friends and I were like the aces in a deck of cards. So we got drunk one night and each got a tattoo.”
“And you became the ace of clubs.” She kissed his ear. “It would seem you would make a better ace of hearts.”
Greg stared at the far wall. “The ace of hearts is dead,” he said softly. “He was killed by the ace of diamonds.”
She slid her hand down his stomach. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.
He turned slightly to look up at her. “What would your card be?”
She smiled gently. “The ace of spades of course.”
He looked at her in surprise. “Why that card?”
“Because it’s the most powerful card in the deck. You can do anything with it.” She kissed his neck. “The ace of spades always gets its way.”
He brushed his hand against the back of her neck. “But with a deuce you can make a dead hand a winner.”
“People fear the ace,” she murmured. Pulling back, she lay down beside him and grinned. “Shall we play?”
He laughed gently. “What games do you know?”
“All of them. How about five-card draw?” She raised an eyebrow. “Do you know how to play?”
“Yes.” He looked over her carefully. “What are the stakes?”
“One hand. If I win,” she kissed him gently, “you have to go out and get us some dinner.”
Greg held her face and smoothed her hair back. “If I win...you have to leave Krylov.” He kissed her again. “Go somewhere I can see you again.”
She looked surprised. “What? No, that is too dangerous."
“I can’t leave you behind,” he insisted. "And this will be my last meeting with Krylov.”
A last meeting, which meant he wouldn’t be coming back. It was best if he left, safest for him. Yet the thought of him returning to London churned her insides so violently that she thought she might be sick.
Greg saw the look on her face and gently kissed her again to calm her down. “Just think about it.”